Reading Notes - page 6 of 6
Ahead of its time?
The book was an instant success on publication, and has remained a best seller to this day. Although other Stevenson works addressed the darker side of Scotland and the dualities so evident - Alan Breck and Davie Balfour in Kidnapped and Catriona, the struggle between the generations in Weir of Hermiston or the deadly feud between the brothers in The Master of Ballantrae - this was a one-off in what could be regarded as a kind of science fiction, although not very scientific, but chiming with the sense at the time of the developments going on in medicine and the understanding of the human mind.
The twentieth-century has been full of books which amplify these interests, particularly those which examine the different constituents of what it means to be Scottish - Highland, Lowland, town, country - and how hard it is to be sure of one's own identity and to remain sure at a time of change.
A book as recent as James Robertson's The Testament of Gideon Mack shows how the questions thrown up by Stevenson, and by Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, can still be reworked powerfully in the twenty-first century to depict the age-old question of someone struggling to find their own identity. When Jekyll sees himself for the first time in the mirror as Hyde, he feels not revulsion but "a leap of welcome". He may look different, but "this, too, was myself". Accepting that fact, and the challenges it raises, is still a powerful stimulus to writers today.
The book raises many questions: Do we understand ourselves, let alone other people? What does the book say about repression? About a class system so rigidly exclusive? About a society where the only female characters seem to be maidservants, harpies or morally dubious?
Professor Ian Campbell
Book group reading notes are © Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and were provided by Professor Ian Campbell.